Every three years a division of the OECD called the Programme for International Student Assessments, or PISA, tests 15-year-olds around the developed world on math, reading and science. The report’s subsequent publication unfailingly stirs up a frenzy of politicians seeking soundbites, reformers grasping for useful outrages, and reporters scrounging for sensational angles.
This year the United States placed in the middle of the pack in reading and science, and below average in math, prompting headlines like “US High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings,” as The Wall Street Journal fretted. But lost in the hubbub over the performance of 6,100 US teenagers on one-off exams is an account of what’s really wrong with American education.
Mainstream outlets dutifully grab blurbs from the usual suspects in the reform crowd and their counterparts in labor and progressive education circles. One camp calls for greater accountability measures, such as Common Core standards, while the other asks us to address childhood poverty and pay teachers more. Then they return to the rankings.
The problem is that the undue focus on test scores gets in the way of nuanced debate and automatically puts opponents of accountability and market reforms on their heels, since testing sends the first volley: our kids are flubbing some huge important test.
Still, PISA’s voluminous reports provide some grist for thoughtful analysis. As Diane Ravitch and others note, it was ever thus in international test rankings for the US, which “has NEVER been first in the world, nor even near the top, on international tests,” Ravitch writes. To best improve scores, she recommends addressing the near-quarter of US children in poverty.
The PISA report leaves no question as to poverty’s importance: “socio-economic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries”—about 15 percent of variation by its calculations.
Others emphasize policy conclusions that PISA draws: children attending pre-kindergarten perform better across most OECD countries, and higher-performing countries tend to pay their teachers quite well. “The United States,” says the report, “spends a far lower proportion than the average OECD country on the salaries of high-school teachers.”